NATO urges continued sanctions on Russia over Ukraine

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Brussels (AFP) - Damaging EU economic sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis must be kept in place to force Moscow to meet its Minsk ceasefire commitments, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

His comments come as the European Union discusses renewal of the sanctions amid doubts about their effectiveness and cost, and concerns that US President-elect Donald Trump may take a softer line on Russia.

"The international community must keep pressure on Russia to respect its obligations, especially (when) the security situation in eastern Ukraine remains so serious," Stoltenberg said after NATO foreign ministers met their Ukrainian counterpart in Brussels.

"It's important that the economic sanctions be maintained."

The 28-nation European Union -- of which 22 members also belong to NATO -- imposed economic sanctions on Russia after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

They have been rolled over regularly since then but on several occasions Italy -- which traditionally has close ties with Russia -- has called for a debate before going ahead.

EU president Donald Tusk said last month he was confident the sanctions would be approved before an EU leaders summit on December 15 but diplomatic sources told AFP Wednesday that Italy was once again holding up the process.

"The Italians want that to happen following a discussion at the summit and a presentation of the position on the ground by (French President Francois) Hollande and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel," one EU source said.

France and Germany brokered a series of accords in the Belarus capital Minsk in late 2014 and 2015 which committed Russia to ending support for the rebels in return for greater autonomy.

The West says Russia supplies the rebels with military hardware and assistance, a charge Moscow denies although it says it does support their cause.

Stoltenberg said the meeting with Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin demonstrated NATO's "unwavering support" for Kiev in the face of "a massive increase in ceasefire violations."

"Russia has a significant responsibility in bringing the conflict to an end," he said, regretting lack of progress in recent talks between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said separately he expected the economic sanctions to be rolled over without much difficulty given the impasse over Ukraine.

Besides the economic measures, which target Russia's oil, financial and military sectors, the EU has also imposed a separate series of travel ban and asset freeze sanctions against Ukraine and Russian figures deemed to have undermined Ukrainian territorial integrity. These sanctions expire in March.

Similar sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea run to end-June 2017.

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